Josh writes in his Cahier:
Some of us seize upon the cultural production of these developing nations (Chinese martial arts epics, Bollywood musicals) because they show us what happens when a culture that has not yet shed its precapitalist foundations encounters the transforming power of a freetrading capital that demands in an ironic recapitulation of Whitman, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” To us a Bollywood film looks like camp for the reasons Nealon describes: it discovers the surplus value in an outdated mode of production (in this case, the Technicolor Hollywood musicals of the 50s and early 60s). But in this case our ironic embrace rides atop the fullthroated embrace of an entire culture whose ambivalence about capitalism’s solvency (I use that word in both its major senses) is palpable, so that in an odd way to be a Bollywood fan is to be somewhat in touch with with energies that become radical when transferred from the a scene of “high” capitalism to our own late-late capitalism. (Any thoughts on this, Gary?)
I watch all the same movies that Gary does, so I suppose I’m equally qualified to respond to this. I have to say that when I take pleasure in a Bollywood film, I’m not consciously wallowing in “the transforming power of a freetrading capital” as encountered by “a culture that has not yet shed its precapitalist foundations” [it suddenly occurs to me that there is no such culture — certainly not “ours”, but anyway…], nor have I ever thought of my excitement around desi flicks as being “in touch with the energies that become radical when transferred from the scene of, etc.” While it would be overly ingenuous to say that I have no “cult stud” perspective on Bollywood at all, because of course I do (I was once a grad student, after all), the fact is that I watch these movies because, well… I dig them. I get off on these films in an much less analytical way than Josh describes because they are better. The colors are better, the songs are better, the actresses lovelier, the actors more dashing, the clothes more stunning. I wonder also about Josh’s hypothesis about discovering value in an outdated mode of production — the Bollywood films I most like are themselves from the 50s and 60s, only ten or twenty years behind Hollywood, if that, and their power comes not only from technicolor and tunes but also from the genre’s cultural roots in Parsi theater, imported Shakespeare, and, of course, the Mahabarata and other epics. More than anything, these films return to me an atmosphere I knew as a child in California in the 70s, replete with ashrams and saris, and my own ardor as a little girl taping songs from 30s musicals off the radio or “tap dancing” down the street holding my mom’s hand.
I think American musicals became obsolete because the performers got too far away from vaudeville, which demanded a range of talents. How many American celebrity film stars these days learned their chops before a live audience starting at the age of four? How many of them can sing and dance? How many of them can even act? I’m not sure because I don’t, frankly, go to see these films very often.